While joy refers to immediate experience, satisfaction has something to do with accomplishment, with reaching goals that are truly meaningful and rewarding to us. But that’s trouble right there, because the goals we learn from popular culture—material wealth, the newest possessions, beating out the other guy—don’t really lead to much satisfaction. There’s a lot of evidence now that the more materialistic your goals, the less happy you are. If we want to feel truly satisfied, we have to accept from the start that we’ll be swimming upstream.
Besides that, we have to find a balance between present joy and future satisfaction. Do we party away our twenties, and miss out on important opportunities, or do we work 70 hours a week, and lose our social skills? There are questions like these in any stage of life, and I provide some practical guidelines for making these decisions.
So setting a life course that will provide greater satisfaction is very specific to the individual, and I have an exercise that will help you determine what’s most important to you. Nevertheless, research has shown that the most satisfying things in life promote feelings like greater self-esteem, more autonomy, competence and mastery, and connection to others. Less important were needs like luxury, popularity, and security.
The way you use your time may be the most important key to satisfaction that is under your direct control. Your schedule is your life. We all know that people who are battling cancer or other life-threatening illnesses find their priorities have changed drastically. They no longer waste time on unimportant things; they want to spend their time with loved ones or enjoying the simple pleasures of life—the seasons, the sunshine, eating, playing. Their lives are changed dramatically. But these are exactly the same people they were before their illness. They had only the same abilities that had seemed to be inadequate in making them happy before; but in truth they always had within themselves the capacity to change their lives, reprioritize, and make themselves happier. So do we; the trick is to do this before a serious illness knocks it into our heads.